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Columbus Weighs Disposition Of Closed Schools
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Five more Columbus City schools will permanently close at the end of the school year. The closings continue a trend. In the past decade, Columbus has closed dozens of school buildings. Some of schools have found new life, others have been renovated or slated for demolition.
On Clinton Heights Avenue, fences surround a closed school annex building. The Columbus School Board wants to demolish the century old building.
“Older buildings when they can be saved in Columbus should be saved because we’re not a Cleveland we’re not a Cincinnati and every older building adds character that people really care about,” said Noreen Warnock, a neighborhood protestor.
Clintonville neighborhood groups want the district to keep the building for possible future use of classroom space. The board decided there is no “viable” use for the building and has scheduled its demolition.
This story is not new for the Columbus City Schools. It has too many classrooms and too many buildings. Since the 1970′s, enrollment has been cut in half.
Over the past decade the district has closed more than 30 schools because of enrollment declines. During a recent board meeting, district buildings manager, Carole Olshavsky, says the district uses set criteria when considering whether to convert, sell, or demolish a closed school building.
“As we look at our properties, we never recommend getting rid of all of our vacant properties. We’ve always maintained we need to retain some property to allow for future changes, if not growth,” Olshavsky said. “Our next challenge will be to find an alternative use for that building, whether the district can use it for something else or whether there’s a viable tenant that brings services to the neighborhood.”
Columbus is not alone
Urban districts across the country have too many school buildings. Emily Dowdall studies the issue for the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia.
“In our study it looks like a large scale, these type of large scale closures are really becoming a fact of life in American cities and the trend isn’t likely to stop,” Dowdall said.
As in Columbus, Pew found declining student enrollment in many cities. Dowdall says the decision to close schools is almost always controversial.
“They’re often the largest building in a residential neighborhood. They sort of tower over the neighborhood in many cases and so they can have an outsize influence. There are many instances where they’ve attracted illegal activities, drug use, things of that sort, and they can kind of cast a pall over that community,” Dowdall said.
A vacant school building can be a blight on a neighborhood. Columbus has demolished some of its closed buildings to reduce blight. The district maintains other buildings for eventual re-use as offices for school administrators.
But Dowdall said the Pew study indicates a larger trend.
Schools are most likely to be re-used as charter schools, over 40 percent of them.
In Columbus, even some buildings constructed in the late 19th century have been sold or leased to charter schools. The Chicago Avenue School building on the west side is now the Franklinton Preparatory Academy.
And in the Old North section of Columbus, the hallways of Medary Elementary once again echo the voices of school children after being closed for five years. The Helping Hands organization leases the building from the district and operates a charter school and therapy center for autistic children. The 122 year old building has slate blackboards in classrooms, 12- to 15-foot high ceilings, and terrazo floors.
“You know, this building has so much character,” said Erin Neeley, who helped start the charter school. “We actually really do love the building. We’ve taken really great care of it. We’ve put a lot of money into making as many upgrades as we can and making it fit our needs.”
Neeley says the school enrolls 104 students from nine Central Ohio counties. She says they chose it partly because of its location. It’s right off I-71. But, there was also a more intangible consideration too.
“Being in a school setting was important to our families because they wanted their kids to have the opportunity to come to school. So rather than trying to make changes in an office suite and try to make it look like a school as much as we could, we really liked being in an actual school building,” Neeley said.
And other Central Ohio charter schools could soon get that same opportunity to be in an actual school building.
Columbus City Schools currently has 15 vacant school buildings, including eight that are for sale. The disposition of those buildings hinges on future enrollment and the real estate market for school properties.
Dowdall at Pew Research says school sales in urban districts are usually a last resort for administrators and boards of education
“And there’s also a loss of control for the district and the community in terms of what the next use of that building is,” says Dowdall.
Warnock and other Clintonville residents say they just want to save the annex building from demolition so it can possibly be re-used. Warnock says she’s helping recruit her neighbors to address the school board when it meets later today.